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How well do you know your barbecue food safety facts?

How healthy is your summer barbecue? Put your knowledge to the test with these common nutrition and food safety dilemmas.
Image: Raw beef burger, buns and pickles
The "safe" internal temperature for a grilled burger is 160 degrees.istetiana / Getty Images

It’s officially summer. Which means it’s also officially time to throw open the doors, fire up the grill and take your dining outdoors.

But from the condiment table to the cooler, there are diet landmines everywhere you turn. And that’s just scratching the surface of the dangers that lurk at your outdoor barbecue. Food safety is a huge concern as the temperatures heat up and people take their cooking and eating out of the kitchen and into the backyard. When it comes to safely handling food and preventing food-borne illness this season, how do you stack up?

NBC News health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom puts your summer barbecue knowledge to the test with these common nutrition and food safety dilemmas. Quiz yourself now to stay safe later!

You’re at the condiment table, is ketchup a better or worse choice than BBQ sauce?

Answer: Better

Ketchup is known for being a high-sugar topping, so you may be surprised to hear that barbecue sauce actually clocks in higher. Not only does it have more sugar per tablespoon, but it’s higher in calories and sodium too, says Fernstrom. In fact, “there’s 30 percent more calories in barbecue sauce,” she says. The best pick on the condiment table? Mustard, which has only 5 calories per tablespoon — plus you tend to use much less when using it to top hot dogs and hamburgers.

Is potato salad a better or worse choice than pasta salad?

Answer: Better

Yes, they are both mayo-based salads, but potato salad — with fewer calories and more nutrients per serving — will be the better option when choosing a side. “Pasta salad is usually made with regular, white pasta. Potatoes are really a vegetable, and if you leave the skins on you’re going to get all of the nutrients of potatoes,” says Fernstrom. “Plus, when you dress a potato salad you’re usually going to use less dressing, whether it’s mayonnaise or a vinaigrette, than on a pasta salad. So you’ll get fewer calories and more nutrients.” And stick with a ½ cup serving size, she adds.

Is beer a better or worse drink choice than a margarita?

Answer: Better

Many of us steer clear of beer, thinking its caloric and can cause bloating, but it’s actually the smarter pick at the backyard bar. In fact, most beers contain half the amount of calories as a mixed drink made with juice, says Fernstrom. “If you’re going to have some alcohol, a beer is the better choice. A beer, especially when portion controlled in a bottle, is about 150 calories,” says Fernstrom. “When you have an alcoholic drink, most of them are going to be mixed with fruit juice that has a lot of sugar, and that’s going to be double the calories, or more if the serving is bigger.”

Is it better or worse to rinse raw chicken in the sink before cooking?

Answer: Worse

You may think you’re taking the right steps by rinsing your chicken before throwing it on the grill, but you’re actually increasing the chances of contaminating your kitchen and spreading bacteria. “Just pat it dry,” says Fernstrom. “Washing it spreads bacteria all over the counter and sink; it’s easier to cross contaminate. When you cook it on the grill, all the bacteria will be killed from the heat. So resist the impulse to wash your chicken and put it right on the grill.”

You touch raw meat, and it’s time to wash your hands: how long should you wash your hands in order to kill the bacteria?

a. 10 seconds

b. 20 seconds

c. 30 seconds

Answer: (b) Wash for at least 20 seconds.

“How long is 20 seconds? Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing your hands with soapy water,” says Fernstrom. “If you don’t have soap and water — say you’re at the grill and touch something raw — use some hand sanitizer. It’s not as good as soap and water, but it’s still a good way to get rid of the bacteria.”

How long can you safely leave food outside on the picnic table when it’s 78 degrees outside?

a. One hour

b. Two hours

c. Three hours

ANSWER: (b) two hours.

How long do you usually sit outside picking at the food spread? Chances are, longer than two hours. But that’s how long you have before you need to bring it in and put it in the fridge, says Fernstrom. After this amount of time, the bacteria in food can multiply rapidly and lead to foodborne illness. When it’s a really hot day over 90 degrees, this window shortness to one hour, Fernstrom adds. The FDA tells us to ensure that food stays out of the “danger zone” — between 40°F and 140°F. That means cold food stays below 40°F, and hot food stays warmer than 140°F.

What is considered a “safe” internal temperature for a grilled burger?

a. 150 degrees (medium rare)

b. 160 degrees (medium)

c. 170 degrees (medium well)

ANSWER: (b) 160 degrees.

Stick with medium — “food safety rules say that anything over 140 degrees is going to be safe, but it’s really hard to tell,” says Fernstrom. “Use an instant meat thermometer. You can’t just look at it or press it [and know it’s cooked through].” And if you are at high risk for foodborne illness — think: children, seniors, immune-compromised — stick with at least medium to medium well, since medium rare can be a bigger risk.

What is the safest way to defrost meat?

  1. In the fridge
  2. On the counter
  3. In the microwave

Answer: (a) In the fridge.

“The key is keeping [the meat] cold,” says Fernstrom. “It takes about two days in the refrigerator to thaw out a roast, big pieces pf chicken or hamburger meat. So allow 48 hours to defrost.” Defrosting on the counter in room temperature may be faster, but bacteria can multiply, she adds. And never put it in the microwave: “It cooks from the outside in, so you’ll have some cooked parts, some raw frozen parts, and a lot of bacteria can grow at that in between temperature,” Fernstrom says. What about putting it in a cold dish of ice water? “It works, but you have to be very vigilant at changing the water and ice so it stays super cold,” she says. “So do yourself a favor and put it in the fridge and let it defrost over two days.”

What is the best way to marinate a flank steak?

a. In a big zip-lock bag

b. In a glass baking dish, tightly covered with plastic wrap

c. In a plastic container with its own lid.

ANSWER: (a) big zip lock bag.

“When you use a plastic bag it’s sealed and contained and air tight,” says Fernstrom. “When you have it in a plastic container, or even glass covered with plastic wrap, bacteria can get in and your hands are all over it. Then when you’re massaging it and turning it around while it’s marinating, it’s a mess and you can spread more bacteria around. With a bag you can just turn over the bag; you don’t have to open it.”

When it’s time to put the meat on the grill, “throw away the marinade that’s already been sitting on the meat,” urges Fernstrom. Some people pour the extra juice over the meat, which is a huge safety hazard. “Remove the meat and throw the whole bag and remaining marinade out. You’ll have a much lower chance of cross contamination with a disposable unit," she says. "And if you want that extra marinade, make another batch that has not touched raw meat.”

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